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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — “We never wondered about things like this, things that felt sure, things that felt known,” says Kori Hall, “[b]ut then safe places became unstable. Firm foundations beneath our feet quaked and crumbled.” These words, from a poet featured at Flourish’s exhibition, speak in the tone Oklahomans have been familiar with for more than a year now.

That spirit of weariness that reverberates across America today makes Flourish’s exhibit ‘Examining Welcome’ is well-suited for today’s climate. The artists, from their paintings to their designs to their sculptures, demonstrate a keen understanding of an artistic element that eludes so many: a sense of timing.

Devraat Awashti

The Arts

with Devraat Awasthi

Flourish and Spero Project

The exhibition, organized by Flourish, explores the theme of welcome, and its place in Oklahoma City. Flourish is a collaborative platform for the arts to discuss what people want to see in Oklahoma City.

The Spero Project, as a network for refugee resettlement, partnered with Flourish for their 2021 season discussing welcome and its meaning by centering refugees and asylum seekers in the conversation. The exhibition runs through Sunday, May 16.

Underscoring the ripeness of this discussion, Kim Bandy, CEO of the Spero Project, talked to me about what she hopes visitors take away from the exhibition. “Often people that have experienced the most barriers to welcome are those that embody it the most themselves for others, so we really wanted people that came through the exhibit to gather the resilience, the wisdom, the beauty, and the care that the refugee community offers the broader Oklahoma City community every day.”

By focusing its attention on the art and memories of refugees, the exhibition emphasizes that, as Bandy puts it, “by far the best teachers of, the best embodiment of hospitality and welcome is the refugee community, and they teach us about welcome every day.”

Oklahoma and refugees

Much of Oklahoma’s history is shaped by newcomers, and the exhibition stresses the value and struggle of being new to come. Bandy highlighted that refugee resettlement today occurs on the shoulders of those who came before, including a wave of Vietnamese refugees who are “an integral part of our city’s story, it was very successful.”

Acknowledging “political and policy challenges,” Bandy said that “there really is a core of hospitality and welcome in our city,” and hopes that policy will come to reflect that core. The exhibition advances Flourish and Spero Project’s joint hope to “broaden the story of welcome in Oklahoma City.”

Much of the art exhibited reflects a commitment to faith, forged along the miles-long treks and years-long waits that many refugees have endured to arrive on Oklahoma’s red soil.

This motif reflects the ambitious goals of the American experiment to provide people with the freedom to practice their faith freely, goals which have often proven out of reach; but where they are met, as in refugee resettlement, they prove to be a testament to the beauty and triumph of the human condition.

Refugee hurdles

Bandy spoke at length about the hurdles refugees face when seeking asylum, from political and ethnic conflict vetting procedures to long waits to the process of learning a new language and even learning shoe sizes.

Those struggles are reflected in a myriad of stories and memories displayed. A recording of conversations with resettled refugees revealed the ins and outs of refugee resettlement that most visitors might not have initially thought of; it emphasizes that, as one speaker put it, “the things we think of as little are not little things to the resettled.”

Examining Welcome
Examining Welcome exhibit by Flourish and The Spero Project. (DEVRAAT AWASTHI/Okla City Free Press)

Sang Rem, the Director of Student Support at the Spero Project, talked to me about some of her own memories in the exhibition.

One piece, a painting of children playing amongst the greenery, drew on a theme of growth and remembrance that underlies Flourish’s exhibition. She explained the painting’s reference to her memories of “playing hide-and-seek under the moonlight, going to church every Sunday, showering in the rain, a lot of playing with dirt” while living in Chin State, Burma.

The painting was accompanied with photographs of children on water buffalos and playing freely, as well as a vast array of dresses from Burma reflecting that “we are flowers in a garden,” steeped in diversity. Together, they paint a picture of beauty and introspection.

Sang also spoke about her own personal experiences with refugee resettlement, originating in 1998 when conflict erupted in Burma. She left Burma when she was 5 years old. Her travels took her from Burma to Thailand to Malaysia and finally to North Carolina when she was 15 before arriving in Oklahoma.

No part of her journey was easy. Describing the current conflict consuming Burma, Sang said “it is, in my entire lifetime, the worst one I have ever experienced.”

Examining Welcome
Examining Welcome exhibit by Flourish and The Spero Project. (DEVRAAT AWASTHI/Okla City Free Press)

So much of the art exhibited seeks to bring to light the joys and burdens of resettled refugees, and part of that includes the ever-present concern for the people and places left behind.

A poem by Milena Savovic Whitson beautifully captures the welcome refugees exude. What it describes also is a faith in the promise of American justice and American freedom, a faith painted onto every canvas, molded into every sculpture, and woven into every dress.

But as many have remarked before, rights are only as strong as our willingness to defend them, and likewise, freedom is only as strong as the faith that keeps it. For every refugee turned aside, a piece of that faith diminishes, and an inch of freedom recedes.

The poetry of Whitson and the art displayed by all the resettled refugee community are not only testaments to the beauty of their experience, but warnings of the failure to welcome.

The value of welcome and hospitality is what Flourish hopes residents of Oklahoma City make manifest in their city as it grows.

Last Updated May 15, 2021, 9:43 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor